When parents have their first child, they tend to believe that the child’s behavior, performance in school, and personality have been molded and shaped by their parenting alone. But when they have a second child, they realize that parenting and a shared home environment do not explain all the differences. Even in a shared environment with the same experience, two siblings can be vastly different in their behavior. That’s the genetic component, and the field of Behavior Genetics is the science dedicated to explaining this.
Many dog owners believe that young puppies come to us as blank slates, ready to be molded and shaped into loyal, happy dogs. As long as you provide love, the right amount of discipline, and appropriate training, the outcome should be clear. After all, it’s all in how you raise them. Many people think that “Bad” dogs are the fault of bad owners, but it’s not quite that simple in the world of behavior.
I’ve met several rescue dog owners who were deeply troubled, and sure they have done something (or not done something) to cause their dog’s anxiety or aggression issues. Something must have been lacking in their upbringing. After all, many of these dogs were young when rescued.
In some of these cases, the dogs and people were a mismatch. I see this regularly. These situations lack an understanding combined with an unfortunate and excessive sense of optimism – that any dog can be molded into the perfect pet, as long as they’re “raised right.”
Unfortunately, this is not true.
Many dog owners and professional trainers believe that socialization and training should be foolproof to prevent any later problems. But it’s not as easy as that. Socialization and early training are very powerful things, and doing them can go a long way toward a happy, well adjusted dog. This is the nurture side, but it’s only half the equation.
So what about nature?
Behavioral characteristics can be inherited. After all, we’ve developed specific lines of dogs who are consistently driven to herd, guard, or retrieve without any training for thousands of years. It shouldn’t surprise us then that other behavioral tendencies follow the same path from parents to offspring.
A dog’s genetic background plays a significant role in the dog’s skills and personality. Is the dog shy or reserved with strangers, tolerant and friendly with other dogs, a driven athlete, or a lazy mutt?
Genetics plays a role here.
John Scott and John Fuller conducted a massive experiment carried out over 13 years at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the 1950s and 1960s. Their purpose was to address the genetics of behavior, and they recorded details of dozens of experiments carried out on both purebred and cross-bred dogs from birth through development to a year or more. The experiments consistently showed the strong influence of genetics on traits such as fearfulness, impulsivity, problem-solving ability, working drive, and even tendencies toward aggression. They consistently showed that socialization and learning do influence these traits, to a point, but these forces operate on a pre-existing genetic blueprint.
Is it possible to change behavior? Of course, to a point. You can modify what you have to work with, but you can’t create the dog you want from scratch. If you try to make a dog with the specific behaviors and traits you desire, you have to start with the right abilities and temperament.
Just don’t get into the trap of breed-specific stereotyping or discrimination. Aggression is more common in some breeds, but it’s impossible to make predictions based solely on breed identification. There is too much genetic variability within every breed. It’s best to get a puppy from a good breeder with a reputation for producing dogs that fit you and your lifestyle. Or, get a re-homed adult dog or a dog from a good rescue organization. Some owners need predictability in the personality of the dog they select; any personality type would work for others with a more flexible lifestyle.
It’s important to understand that all dogs come with unique personalities and tendencies to behave differently. We can help these dogs live a happy life with training and good management, but we can’t change who they are.
At DogBehavioristUT.com, we’re here to help you with the selection of your new dog, or help you address any problems you may have with your new dog.